Being vigilant against discrimination is hard when you don’t realise you or someone else is doing it. Use this guide to get to grips with unconscious bias, including what it is, how to spot it and how to root it out. 

Companies across the UK are recognising their responsibility to their workforce and wider society to develop a more equal place to work. A big part of developing a diverse and inclusive workplace involves tackling discrimination in the workplace. 

Employers who are targeting to develop an inclusive company culture recognise the significant benefits to diversity and inclusivity, but also the significant challenges. Furthermore, this task becomes even harder when you or your employees don’t realise that they are discriminating against someone else.  

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias is where one person discriminates against another individual or group depending on their identity or social group (real or perceived), or their association to a particular group, without realising they are doing so.  

This occurs as a natural reaction in how we perceive others in society, as when we see other people, we don’t process them as a blank slate. Instead, we automatically judge their gender, race, age etc. 

Given that we can be influenced by thousands of little different things every day without realising it, it is common for people to have developed deep-rooted biases against particular identities or social groups even if we recognise that we shouldn’t. As such, when we then interact with people of those identities or social groups, we may be unconsciously bias towards or against them. 

This is different to regular bias: not knowing what discrimination is or that you are doing it is not an unconscious bias but ignorance. Unconscious bias is where you recognise and understand discrimination and are actively trying to not do it, but unconsciously discriminate anyway.  

For example, if we take an employee, John Doe, who is over 50 and has a manager, Jane Smith. If Jane was to only offer training opportunities to workers who are under 30 because she believes they are a greater investment, that is not unconscious bias. That is Jane discriminating against John due to his age, even if Jane doesn’t realise that it is discrimination. 

However, if Jane had offered up the training to all of her employees including John but decided on a younger employee without any clear reason why, that could likely have been due to an unconscious bias against John because of his age.  

How do you spot it?

This is incredibly difficult and should really be part of a wider cultural change for more open communication and criticism regarding discrimination. In turn, you should recognise that everyone, including yourself, has unconscious biases and the only way to spot them is to be called out by others through open discussion. 

One method some people use to acknowledge their own unconscious biases is to take an implicit-association test (IAT), such as those developed by Harvard University. 

How do you root it out?

First and foremost, you should cultivate an open and honest culture in which everyone feels comfortable speaking up about any experiences of discrimination. This will help you to reconsider any decisions your made in the past that may not have seemed discriminatory at the time but may have been the result of an unconscious bias. In turn, you will be more likely to spot it during future decision-making processes. 

A part of this is to slow down when making decisions. This bias is unconscious so if you really don’t take the time to elaborate on why you are making a particular decision you are far more likely to follow a discriminatory ‘gut instinct’. 

For a more detailed look at how to root out unconscious bias in the workplace you should better understand the protected characteristics you or others may be discriminated against, and our general guide for employers to developing equality, diversity and inclusion.